Steve Besley's Education Eye: week ending 01 September 2023

Welcome to Education Eye, a regular update detailing the policies and stories happening in UK education, compiled by Steve Besley.

What's happened this week?

Important stories across the board:

Three main talking points this week.

They include further wash-up from this summer’s exams, getting pupils back into school, and university student accommodation. 

Collectively, they signal that familiar rhythm of change as summer gives way to the new academic year and all that goes with it.

The issue of school buildings is unfolding as this briefing goes to print, but is being covered widely in the media.

In other news this week, MPs prepared to return to Westminster with a new minister at the DfE. David Johnston taking over as Under Secretary from the newly promoted Claire Coutinho. Education Committee MPs will also have the chance next week to question Sir Martyn Oliver, the government’s preferred candidate to take over as chief inspector at Ofsted. The appointment coming of course at a time when further reform of the inspection system remains under debate. The Committee has an Inquiry out on this at the moment.

In school news this week, there’s been notable interest in the expert maths group’s advice on the future of maths. Many will be looking out for further details on all this in the coming months. Elsewhere, apart from the pressure on pupil attendance, cost-of-living crisis, and myriad of other daily issues, worries about the safety of some school buildings have been added late to the list of concerns. As the i-newspaper reported, many headteachers have been left, following government guidance, scrambling to draw up contingency plans just days before pupils return. 

In FE this week, the impact of GCSE resits on students and staffing has remained a talking point, while uncertainties around the vocational qualification offer and the future of the apprenticeship levy look likely to remain hot topics going into the Party Conference season. Investment in training and skills funding generally will also never be far away.

In HE, Clearing has continued this week, while fees and future financing is never far away. Both HEPI and the Russell Group had papers out on different aspects of this during the week. And, claxon time, many are expecting an announcement on the EU Horizon membership in the coming weeks.

Links to most of these stories below, but first a bit more detail on those three big talking points this week (other than school buildings).  

  • Summer 2023 exams. What to do about English and maths GCSE resits? It’s not a new question, but has been exacerbated this year by the return to ‘normal’ grading, which has seen more students fail to reach the required grades. Currently students who don’t reach a grade 4 standard pass in these subjects are expected to continue studying them, but this can be hugely demotivating for the two-thirds who fail to improve second time round. It also, as the AoC argued last week, puts great pressure on institutions like colleges, who have to come up with the trained staff, resources and so on. Is there a better way? The expert group, set up to implement the PM’s plans of maths for all to age 18, has added its voice to those calling for alternative qualifications. “I think the best thing to conclude is that the GCSE resit route should continue, but that there must be adequate alternative forms of provision for those for whom that’s not appropriate”, one member told the i-newspaper this week. Functional skills has been used by many as an alternative in recent years, but has so far yet to gain currency. According to the ASCL, what we need ‘is a new certificate for literacy and numeracy’. It is working on just that as part of its education reform plans ahead of a general election.
  • Willetts on this year’s exams. Writing on the conservativehome site this week, former Universities Minister David Willetts pointed to two ‘challenges’ emerging from this summer’s exams. First, to develop online learning – particularly to help with catch-up in parts of the country. “More can be done to use online education to reach those who have lost out the most”, let alone to improve learning generally, he argued. In his view, “Education should be up there alongside healthcare as one of the public services most ripe for innovation and enhancement.” And second, there’s still a lot of work to be done around strengthening vocational routes and technical training. He suggested for example that T levels were struggling to cut it at the moment, and that established vocational qualifications like BTECs should be retained to help strengthen the vocational route. And, interestingly, that a loan system should be considered to help boost take-up of degree apprenticeships. The article is here
  • Pupil attendance. Earlier this week, schools minister Nick Gibb urged parents to send their kids to school his term even if they have a cold. "They face a lifetime of being left behind if they fall behind", he explained. At the same time, the children’s commissioner for England has been running a series of blogs aimed at ensuring pupils attend school regularly. She’s set “an ambitious target of 100% attendance at school because I want to ensure that no child gets left behind”. It’s all part of a high-level campaign this week to get as many pupils as possible back into school for the start of the new term. It comes as concerns continue about persistent and long-term absences – the so-called ghost children – many of whom failed to return after the pandemic. According to the Centre for Social Justice, which has been running a termly School Absence Tracker, 'the number of severely absent pupils has soared by 108 per cent since the pandemic'. The government is taking steps to ensure pupils are fully registered and accounted for, both at a local authority level and in schools, with requirements on electronic registers announced just this week. The Education Committee is due to report on its Inquiry into the matter in the coming weeks. 
  • Student accommodation. ‘I got into uni, but couldn’t find anywhere to live’, so ran a headline on the BBC Education News site this week. It followed a report from the student housing charity Unipol posted on the HEPI website during the week, suggesting that some students may have problems finding accommodation again this year. Post-Covid uncertainty, rising numbers of 18-year-olds, and an increase in international recruitment, all heaped demand for student rooms last year where Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, Manchester and York were among the places that were stretched. The so-called student guarantee, the guarantee of a bed for full-time first year undergraduates remains, but according to Unipol postgrads and others may find things more difficult. Bed space growth has halved over the last four years, with landlords raising rents beyond student means and new build costs rocketing. The NUS has a Renter’s Hub offering advice and information and most individual institutions have student accommodation and support teams, but as the report says ‘student services are not magicians.’

Finally, many people may not be wildly excited about returning to school, but this parent on Twitter (or should that be X) was. “You might not be quite ready to go #backtoschool, but I'm more than ready to return my kids to you. ;) #parenting

The top headlines of the week:

  • ‘No evidence selective school systems boost outcomes’ (Monday).
  • ‘GCSE reform and lessons in tax returns being considered as part of Sunak’s plan to fix maths’ (Tuesday).
  • ‘Schools in England told to be ready to evacuate buildings at risk of collapse’ (Wednesday).
  • ‘Over 100 schools in England ordered to close buildings over safety concerns’ (Thursday).
  • ‘Schools with dangerous concrete race to replan start of term’ (Friday).


  • Online Safety Bill. The government published updated details and guidance on its Online Safety Bill reflecting the latest amendments and setting out how the Bill will protect both children and adults, the types of content tackled, and how the Bill will be enforced. 
  • AI governance. The Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee called for a ‘tightly focussed’ Bill on AI in the King’s Speech as it published an interim report on AI governance, listing twelve related challenges including bias, privacy, access and liability.
  • Sports strategy. The government published an updated sport and physical activity strategy that would aim to have 2.5m more adults and 1m+ more children active by 2030, as new data revealed increases in obesity and inactivity over recent years.
  • Care strategy. The TUC called for a new care workforce strategy with ‘decent’ pay, conditions and training as it published new figures showing that workers in both childcare and social care suffered from poor pay and support leaving both sectors struggling to recruit. 
  • Business Power. The British Chambers of Commerce outlined in a new report a set of 16 policies that businesses and politicians could work on together to help stimulate economic growth, including fostering green innovation, investing in Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs,) and introducing greater flexibility into the apprenticeship levy.
  • IP and AI. The Publishers Association called on the government to ensure that UK intellectual property law was respected and understood in relation to AI use and systems when the UK hosted its global summit on AI in November.

More specifically ...


  • School attendance. The Children’s Commissioner released a series of blogs ahead of the return to school highlighting the importance of full attendance for pupils and the work being done to meet ‘the ambitious target of 100% attendance.’ 
  • School buildings. The government published new guidance for schools likely to have been affected by Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) or crumble-risk concrete, promising a dedicated caseworker, funding for essential immediate works and clarification on responsibilities where necessary but potentially leaving 100+ schools having to move rooms or even relocate at short notice.
  • Maths GCSE. Media reports indicated that the expert group set up to advise on the PM’s proposal of maths for all to age 18 was calling for ‘a potential overhaul of maths’ to include alternatives for maths GCSE resit and the inclusion of more practical maths within any future GCSE. 
  • Youth violence. Ofsted and partners spelt out the guidance to be used by inspectors conducting a joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) of multi-agency responses when children have been affected by serious youth violence, where the inspection focus will be on how partners have responded at a strategic level, the nature of any intervention and how far the issues are clearly understood. 


  • FE workforce. The government published initial data on the FE workforce for 2021/22 revealing a total workforce of 205, 200 with just over 81,000 being teaching staff, 50% teaching vocational subjects and a vacancy rate of 5.4 per 100 teaching positions at the end of the year.
  • 2023 exams. The AoC published a helpful summary briefing on this summer’s exam results covering T levels, L2 and 3 qualifications and GCSEs, noting for instance that more than 23,000 top grades were awarded at L3 while on the flip side the issue of GCSE English and maths resits has remained a concern. 
  • Education and training. The AoC highlighted some of the challenges around skills training for young people ahead of a parliamentary debate on the matter next week, calling among other things for a pause on proposed defunding of existing L3 qualifications such as BTECs, a rebalancing of apprenticeship levy monies to young people and a long-term strategy for post-16 education and skills.


  • Student accommodation. The CEO of the student housing charity Unipol outlined in a blog on the HEPI site the current situation around their student accommodation, pointing to a long list of challenges including demographic and recruitment spikes that have generated demand pressures, providing latest survey evidence on room vacancies and concluding that things will be ‘difficult’ this year.
  • University funding. The Russell Group called for ‘a more sustainable funding model’ as it highlighted the challenges research-universities face in trying to make ends meet, the costs of core areas of provision and the impact of trying to make further efficiencies or dip into reserves in an effort to maintain quality activity.
  • VC’s Pay. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new report looking into vice-chancellor’s pay, acknowledging some of the issues but pointing out that universities are complex ‘high-revenue’ organisations that need to pay comparable salaries to be able to attract top talent and making a number of recommendations around the determination of remuneration to ensure equity.
  • MOOCs. Melissa Highton, assistant principal of online learning at Edinburgh University reflected on the development of MOOCs (massive open online learning courses) at the university ten years on, running through some of the challenges such as the need for relationship building as well as some positives including being able to respond during lockdown, ending up with some do’s and don’ts.

Tweets and posts of note:

  • “Was out buying school trousers with my son yesterday and he wasn't sure of his waist but thought he might be a 32''. I said that I'm usually 34" but on a good day I can fit a 32. He looked me up and down and said "You clearly haven't had many good days recently" | @salfordmatt
  • “In a patch of time that will pass in the blink of an eye our youngest will be leaving home. I will be fine, I am rehearsing his absence, imagining that he is not there, on the other side of that door” | @MooseAllain
  • “Got schooled in parenting. Always taken pride in the dramatic vigour I put into the bedtime story and felt a bit sorry for my less-expressive husband. Last night he explained HE MAKES IT BORING ON PURPOSE AND THAT'S HOW HE GETS THEM DOWN 30 MINUTES EARLIER” | @kmei_
  • “The biggest mistake I’ve often seen in new teachers (and sometimes not so new) is the need to be liked. Teachers don’t need to be liked: they need to be respected. Everything else follows from that” | @lkfgbn
  • “U.S. colleges are searching for solutions as they see alarming numbers of students arrive with gaps in their math skills. Colleges and experts blame pandemic learning setbacks” | @ AP

Memorable quotes

A selection of quotes that merit attention:

  • “For many students – particularly those last in the queue – this will be a difficult year to find affordable housing” – the CEO of student housing charity Unipol on student housing this year.
  • “University staff have repeatedly been told that the cupboard is bare while watching their leaders hit the headlines because of bumper pay increases” – the UCU’s general secretary responds to HEPI’s new report on vice-chancellor’s pay.
  • “It is not clear that they can take on such a big role” – David Willetts ponders the future for T levels.
  • “[Ministers] are taking resits extremely, extremely seriously. They know that it’s bad for the nation, bad for kids and bad for educational institutions” – a member of the expert maths group on the GCSE resit issue.
  • “We all have to do our bit to make sure children are where they should be” – schools minister Nick Gibb urges parents to ensure children return to school for the new school year.
  • “This week, we must put in place the final plans to make the return to school run smoothly” – the children’s commissioner adds her voice on the importance of pupil attendance.
  • “Nothing is more important than making sure children and staff are safe in schools and colleges, which is why we are acting on new evidence about RAAC now, ahead of the start of term” – the education secretary rushes out guidance on RAAC before term starts.
  • There is no escaping the fact that the timing of this couldn’t be worse” – unions react to the latest revelations about RAAC.

Important numbers

Not-to-be-missed numbers of the week:

  • 0.2%. GDP growth in the UK in the second quarter of this year, according to latest figures from the OECD.
  • One in eleven. The number of workers in England likely to be working in the NHS by 2036/7, according to analysis from the IfS.
  • £2,500. The amount of subsidy universities have had to cough up per undergraduate in 2022/23 to make up for the shortfall in tuition fees, according to the Russell Group.
  • 19,200. The number of managers in FE in 2021/22 out of a total workforce of 205,200, according to latest government data. 
  • 47%. The number of respondents who agreed that school registers should be kept electronically with 40% disagreeing and 13% not sure, according to the summary of responses to the government’s consultation on the matter.
  • 80%. The number of local authorities in England reporting that childcare providers in their area were finding it hard to recruit given the lack of decent pay and conditions, according to a report from the TUC.
  • 150 minutes. The amount of moderately intense activity adults should carry out per week, with children aiming for 60 minutes of physical activity a day according to latest Chief Medical Officer guidelines.

Everything else you need to know ...

What to look out for next week:

  • Parliament returns (Monday 04 September).
  • Parliamentary Adjournment on ‘Education, employment and training for young people’ (Monday 04 September).
  • Resolution Foundation event on ‘Can new labour market institutions drive good work?’ (Monday 04 September).
  • Education Committee pre-appointment hearing for the new Ofsted Chief Inspector (Tuesday 05 September).
  • Westminster Hall debate on the Turing Scheme (Tuesday 05 September).
  • UCU College strike ballot (Tuesday 05 September).
  • Westminster Hall debate on financial education in schools’ (Wednesday 06 September).

Other stories

  • Looking forward to the start of term? It seems to come round quicker each year but the start of term looms for most next week. According to Teacher Tapp, 7% of those surveyed are dreading, well perhaps not dreading but not looking forward to the start of term, while 10% are ‘strongly’ looking forward to it. A further 41% is ambivalent, neither agree nor disagree with the sentiment about looking forward to returning to school. Teacher Tapp say that this is the lowest set of figures since it started asking the question six years ago. A link to the survey is here.
  • Student living. NatWest’s latest Student Living Index is packed with useful details for anyone heading off to university shortly for the first time. For instance, according to the survey evidence, student loans make up more than half of the monthly income, rent remains the largest outgoing, spending on alcohol is dropping and students spend an average of £109.57 a month at the supermarket with £28.81 a month on takeaways. Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Coventry are the areas with the highest cost-of-living, Bournemouth and Cardiff the lowest. And London tops the list for the price of a pint at £5.51, Lancaster is the cheapest at £3.81. The full Index with a mass of data and charts can be found here.

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Steve Besley

Disclaimer: Education Eye is intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments in the education sector. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted by Steve Besley or EdCentral for decisions made on the basis of any information provided.



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